September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.
Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.
Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).
The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend. Here’s the full passage:
“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars. “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.” He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week. “Welcome to the dream-factory.”
Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter. Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming. Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static. (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.) Books? God, how embarrassing!
And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.” This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming. We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream. We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them. This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.
Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.” Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America. It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read. It is where you go to make your own world. It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information. Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions. They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long. These are valuable services.
At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.” This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here. Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.” In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials. This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.” (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)
The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.” And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives. Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves. Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.
As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping? How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document? Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought. Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?
For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it. Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world? Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator? Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world? As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind. It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything. (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.” Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich. He provides two common understandings of the term:
(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..
(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.
He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”
Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?
This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey. (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.) The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow. Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over. (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.) Both canny and uncanny. It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.
Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger. The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich. And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self. Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.
Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double. This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.” But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.
All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them). I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told. It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena. Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama. Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage? Or all of the above? (Well, it is definitely of Borges. That’s for sure.) Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?
(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot. It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential. It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)
August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.
It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).
I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)
And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.
(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.
I shouldn’t be writing this.
Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.
Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)
So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:
-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.
-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.
-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.
-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”
You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.